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In Africa, free primary education with a catch

NAIROBI, Kenya—Maureen Akinyi is 14, serious and poised, and she dreams of becoming a lawyer. Orphaned at 3 after both her parents died of long illnesses, she's lived with a succession of guardians, holding on to little except her clothes and her schoolbooks.

Job Onyando, 12, is a good-natured boy with a stubborn streak who's had to hold his family together through his mother's death and his father's bout with alcoholism. He's up before dawn every day to look over his homework and, when there's enough food, to help prepare a meager breakfast with his three siblings.

Both children of Nairobi's sprawling Kibera slum, scarred by Africa's twin scourges of poverty and disease, have at least one thing going for them: They're going to school.

A few years ago, that would have been unthinkable. But over the past decade, bowing to domestic pressures and backed by donors, several African countries have eliminated primary school tuition, paving the way for millions of children from poor families to attend classes for the first time.

In Kenya, one of President Mwai Kibaki's first moves upon taking office in 2003 was to make education free through the eighth grade. Fees had started at about $12 a year per student, but that was too much for many poor families. When the fees were eliminated, students flooded into public schools. Enrollment rose to 7.6 million from 5.9 million, and it's still climbing.

But the cash-strapped government still hasn't hired more teachers or built additional classroom space. In cities such as Nairobi, classes bulge with nearly 100 students, and books and basic supplies often don't reach remote regions.

Throughout Africa, there's a catch to free primary education: It offers hope to the most vulnerable children, but it's stretching school systems to the breaking point.

"It's had an undisputed impact in helping children access school," said Janice Dolan, an education adviser for the British charity organization Save the Children. "But at some level, the focus has been on access rather than quality of education."

The first African nation to abolish school fees was tiny, impoverished Malawi, but 12 years later, its classrooms are still overflowing. The literacy rate has grown only 2 percentage points, to 60 percent. In a report on primary education this year, World Bank analysts singled out Malawi, Kenya and Uganda as countries where rapid expansion has degraded the quality of schooling.

"We are receiving children, and we are not ready for them," said Elisheba Khayeri, the head teacher at Nairobi's Ayani Primary School. "No one prepared us for these large classrooms."

"Enrollment is up and the dropout rate is down," she said. "More children are accessing school. Education in Kenya is now not only for those who can afford it."

Kenya's senior deputy director of education, Stephen Karaba, said the shortcomings were due to budget constraints and would eventually be addressed. He said the government is already spending roughly an additional $114 million each year—one-tenth of the total education budget—on free primary education, including textbooks for every student.

"While it is true that in the majority of schools, the children are more than teachers can handle effectively, teaching and learning materials are available for everyone," Karaba said.

The Ayani Primary School is among the few public schools in Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa, where some 800,000 people huddle on a one-square-mile patch of fetid earth just outside central Nairobi. Officially, the government considers Kibera an illegal squatter camp. It's not labeled on maps, and there's no public water, power or sanitation service.

Perched on a quiet hill above Kibera's rolling sea of tin-roofed shacks, Ayani is a collection of spartan concrete blocks arrayed around a dirt courtyard, bisected by a shallow sewage trench. The stench of waste wafts over the campus day and night—but that's not unusual in Kibera.

In 2002, Ayani had 1,293 students and 27 teachers, roughly 48 students to a class. By September, enrollment had ballooned to 2,087—slightly more girls than boys—but the government had added only two more teachers.

The strain on the 25-room campus is obvious. Boys and girls clad in fraying khaki uniforms clamber over each other for space at the wooden picnic-style tables that serve as desks. Outside, there are 10 toilet stalls for 1,100 girls.

The influx has forced Ayani's teachers to revise their goals. The school's national assessment scores have dropped 7 percent since 2002, but with few other resources available, proponents of free schooling argue that it's saved countless children from life on the streets. Even if educational quality has diminished, they say, many more children now have access to government-provided teachers, counselors, lunch programs and other services.

"Even if they don't know how to read and write, at least someone knows they are there," said Stella Kaabwe, a UNICEF education officer in Mozambique, which eliminated school fees last year.

One-quarter of the students in Nairobi's Ayani Primary School are orphans or others who are considered especially vulnerable. One of them is Job, the second of four children who share—with their father and a dog named Amigo—a lightless one-room shack in the gritty heart of Kibera.

When Kenya introduced free schooling, Job, at age 8, joined the first grade. Teachers said he was bright. But at home, Job's unemployed father was drinking heavily and barely around. His mother fell sick soon after bearing a fifth child, and neither she nor the infant survived.

After her death, Job's father slipped deeper into alcoholism. With barely any money at home, Job left school and wasn't seen for several weeks. When a social worker found him, he was working as a day laborer in Kibera, hauling bags of trash for a neighbor, making pennies.

Teachers brought him back to school and, with the help of church leaders, they confronted Job's father. Three years later, the man has found God and renounced drinking.

But he still can't find work. Dinner most evenings consists of a simple stew of cabbage and potatoes. Job and his siblings do their homework around a termite-riddled coffee table by the thin light of a single paraffin candle.

With steely discipline, Job has managed to excel. Last term, he ranked third in his class of 72 fourth-graders. His teacher praises his hard work, especially in math.

But it's a struggle to stand out in class. When the teacher poses a question, dozens of little hands shoot up. Some snap their fingers insistently and murmur, "Teacher! Teacher!" Job rolls his eyes.

"I don't like sitting with all these children," he said, preteen annoyance creeping into his voice. "Some of them are dangerous, especially when giving exams. They like to cheat."

"He is a boy with a brain," said Leah Asego, a teacher who works with Ayani's underprivileged children. "If he is helped, he will go far. We're determined not to lose him."

Maureen, a seventh-grader at the Ayani school and an orphan, has lived in five homes in and around Nairobi's Kibera slum in the past year. Two sets of relatives moved away, a third one died and she's been living with neighbors since the summer.

The constant moving dampened the spirits of the soft-spoken girl with the thin braids and warm smile. Her scores fell slightly, but she never fell below fifth in her class of 74.

"I kept thinking that maybe tomorrow or the next night I would go to another home," she said. "It interfered with my education. I couldn't think about anything else."

In her final seventh-grade term, she already knows that her guardians are paying to send their two children to private schools. They can't send her to secondary school, where fees run into the hundreds of dollars.

"What does she do next?" said Khayeri. "Such a girl, if she went back home, she will be married off right away and that will be the end of it."

But Maureen doesn't think about that yet. She has midterms to prepare for. In class, she sits at the far end of the third row of desks, her arm propped—or perhaps squashed—against a window, working with her head down.

The concrete classroom resembles a bunker, made even darker when another teacher walked in and switched off the overhead light, chastising the class for wasting electricity. The school has to watch every penny, as new students from the neighborhood trickle in nearly every day.

"No child," said Khayeri, "is sent away."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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